The last time I had marched for, or against, something was in ’61, when my high school administration adamantly banned the wearing of boat-neck style shirts from classroom attire. Wear one and you simply would not graduate. Can you imagine? This was a public HS school on Long Island, not a parochial school run by nuns. I wonder what they would have thought today when observing the slouchy butt revealing jeans or the fashionable second skin: jeggings, worn by today’s youth. As I recall, re: the boat-neck revolution, (mine was red and white striped) our student body lost, but order was quickly restored. Graduation day arrived, and with it all our grandiose dreams of independence and new freedoms─ synonymous with leaving home or heading off to college.
But not until my second year of teaching in ’67, did I feel the real impact of what it meant to stand up for your beliefs, and the risks that often occur when doing so. I had moved to Washington, DC where my husband, one of very few white students attending Howard University, was completing law school. Being part of that atmosphere, in the 60’s, it was impossible not to be involved in civil rights and all the changes going on in our country. I began teaching both fourth grade and sixth grade in a very progressive school in Montgomery County. Also, during that time, thousands of young men where being drafted for the war in Viet Nam. Early on, there had been student deferrals but they were soon eliminated. Next you had to be married, and finally, so not to be drafted, you had to have a child, which I would have that very next year.
We were adamantly against the war and heartbroken for the families of those who had already lost their lives. Along with our family and friends, we attended the marches on Washington, the sit-ins, and almost daily, the newspapers were filled with pictures of those like us protesting in front of the White House. The Washington Post headlines and cover pages showed both the beauty and ugly unruliness of protest, much like we see today. Many times, my students asked questions about what was going on, and why our country was in that faraway place called Viet Nam. I’m not sure exactly how I answered them back then, but I do remember my one big mistake:
When a front page photo from the Post was brought in to school one day for “show and tell,” I was too quick to mention that my husband and I had participated in that exact protest depicted in the paper. What resulted from that admission was that I almost lost my job-- the only job supporting us at the time. How was I to know that among my young students was the son of a former West Pointer? I didn’t have to say that I thought the war was wrong, just my disclosure re: the protest was enough to cause turmoil and confusion. Of course, I quickly apologized to the complaining parents, and learned the most important lesson as a teacher─ my influence was greater than I ever could have imagined. And so, as an educator, I learned to present most conflict from all its multiple angles. I needed to be more private about my personal opinions and portray a sense of neutrality with whatever I decided to share. As difficult as that was sometimes, I believe it was best for my students.